Cheap things to do in Cartagena, Colombia
Cartagena is possibly the most charming city in all of the Caribbean coast, with its cobblestone streets, towering cathedrals and brightly colored walls.
Horse drawn carts transport tourists throughout this quaint old town, and you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time as you navigate its narrow alleyways while salsa music thumps out of homes nearby.
A traveler’s hotspot in Colombia, Cartagena certainly isn’t the cheapest place to visit in the country. We paid US$60 for a basic double hotel room (including breakfast) and then around US$20 per person, per night in a six bed dorm at a hostel.
But if you’re smart you can find some bargain areas in and around the town, helping you save your pennies as you explore this picturesque city.
Cheap things to see and do in Cartagena
Walk the city walls
The best place in Cartagena to start your exploring is the city walls. You can walk around the entire town along its fortress, looking down onto the old town below. There are restaurants along the way, but cut costs by taking a picnic and enjoy a sandwich, sitting with your legs hanging over the walls, as the sun sets over the ocean.
The advantage of walking the city walls when you first get to town is that you can see where everything is throughout Cartagena, get your bearings, and then decide where you want to head to next.
Visit the fort
Cartagena’s fort (Castillo San Felipe de Barajas is the official name) is hardly a hidden find in the city, with Huffington Post labeling it as a must-see.
There’s no doubt the views from the top of the fort, built in the mid-1600s, are beautiful – as you get a view of both the ocean and Cartagena beneath you. And at just US$8.50 per person to enter, it’s on the budget-end of tourist attractions.
There is very little written description about the fort once inside, but you can purchase an audio guide for an extra US$5, or hire a guide for a bit more.
It’s best to go at the beginning or the end of the day, as it can get very hot up at the fort and it doesn’t have many shady areas to protect you from the sun. You’ll also avoid the crowds this way.
To visit, take a cab from the city center for about US$4. Or you can walk from the outskirts of the city walls to the fort. This takes around 10 minutes.
Here’s a tip: If you don’t want to stump up the money to visit the fort, but would still like to get a closer look, go to the shopping center that’s to the right side of the fort’s entrance. Have lunch in the food court and you will have a spectacular view over the fort through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows.
Learn about pirates at the Naval Museum
Cartagena has had many battle with pirates during the Spanish days, and before that the native people tried to fight off the many who tried to conquer them.
This extensive history – mainly based around sea-faring and battles – is fascinating, and the best place to step back into the past and relive it is at the Naval Museum.
For US$3.50 a ticket, you can hardly go wrong with a visit to the Naval Museum. Although few signs are in English, it’s worth a walk around to stare at the models of boats and old Spanish guns that have been preserved for hundreds of years.
See what the pirates were fighting over at the Gold Museum
Although smaller than the gold collection in Bogota, this Museo del Oro y Arqueología in Cartagena is still worth a visit – especially considering it’s free.
Marvel at the 25 caret pieces from all over Colombia, and watch a video describing how the jewelry was made and where it came from.
The museum is a good place to visit in the middle of the day when the heat in Cartagena becomes unbearable, as the air conditioning is cranked up, enabling to you get some respite from the heat.
Stroll through the arty Getsemaní district
Don’t miss a visit to the artistic Getsemaní district of Cartagena, with its street art covered walls, cafes spilling out on to the pavement, and lively night scene.
You can spend hours getting lost in this part of town, which only really opened up to tourism ten or so years ago. It’s kept a lot of its rough-edge charm and is now somewhat of a hipster haunt.
One of the best places to people watch is the Plaza de la Trinidad where you might see a wedding on in the cathedral on a Saturday night, or kids passing the time by playing football in the square while teenagers skateboard.
Learn to salsa like a local
You can’t go clubbing in Cartagena without first learning a few salsa moves. If you want to fit in with the local crowd, who often look like they were born to dance, it’s best to get your moves down pat with a salsa lesson first.
El Viajero hostel offers free salsa lessons on selected nights of the week – pop in to see what the schedule is and then get your groove on.
Learning to salsa before you hit the clubs is a good way to pick up the fast Colombian dance moves whilst also making a few friends to party with later in the night.
Affordable places to eat in Cartagena
Located out the front of the Media Luna Hostel, this inexpensive restaurant with its high ceilings and brightly-colored décor is the perfect place to come for a bite.
The Red Moon specializes in burritos and they are to die for. For around US$7 you can get a pork, beef or chicken burrito and pick your own salad to go inside it.
Similar to the Subway concept, you can make your burrito exactly how you like it, and the freshly-squeezed juices to wash your meal down with are delicious too.
Saint Roque Restaurante Café
Not only will you be eating cheaply if you dine at Saint Roque, but you’ll also be helping children in need too.
The Dutch owner of this restaurant co-owns a nearby school for street kids and donates much of the proceeds from the restaurant to the running of the charity.
The Balinese style food on offer is delicious and if you dine here you can expect to pay around US$15 for a two course meal.
A great place to go for breakfast or lunch, Caffe Lunatico is a small bar restaurant that has a very friendly vibe. The smiley servers also dish up delicious happy hour cocktails all night long on Mondays – very tempting if you’re in town then.
On weekdays you can also order Caffe Lunatico’s US$7.50 lunch special which includes a soup, salad, main course, juice and dessert or coffee. Bargain!
And there you have it – a rundown of how to do Cartagena on the cheap. Have you been? Where would you recommend to go and see? Or do you have a cheap eat tip?
By Carmen-Allan Petale
Carmen is one half of the couple behind Double-Barrelled Travel, a travel blog focused on vlogging. Carmen married Dave two and a half years ago, and they quit their journalism careers in mid-2013 for a life on the road.